Another View

The war against transparency and accountability

By: Kevin Hanley
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I remember, while walking in awe and curiosity inside the magnificent Library of Congress in Washington, D.C., with book-packed shelves, diligent librarians and authors thumbing through pages and writing notes on scraps of paper all around me, looking up toward the inner rotunda. Encasing the inner rotunda the tiny mosaic tiles of gold, brown, green and white created images of climbing vines, books, birds and the words: Knowledge is power. James Madison, who first proposed the idea of creating a congressional library in 1783 wrote: “Knowledge will forever govern ignorance; and a people who mean to be their own governors must arm themselves with the power which knowledge gives.”

Are we arming ourselves “with the power which knowledge gives?” After working for state lawmakers and as an elected city council member, it’s clear that too many politicians are mere cheerleaders for the government they nominally head. They should be leaders who demand information about program effectiveness — the “good, bad, and the ugly” of performance — and enact reforms to improve services to their constituents.

It’s not surprising that last year the State of California ranked dead last in a 50-state comparison on budget transparency. The state’s budget process is flawed. Each year, the governor’s office and hundreds of departments, boards and commissions add up the previous year’s costs, add a percentage increase above inflation, add brand new programs and costs to create next year’s budget. Inputs are measured. Outcomes are not. No successful business is run this way.

In states, counties, and cities across the country, reformers are succeeding in replacing the flawed budgeting process by directing that governments enact what is called Performance-Based Budgeting (PBB). What is PBB? First measure the effectiveness of each program. Then share the performance metrics with elected officials and the public early in the budget process. This gives elected officials the opportunity to eliminate, reform and or shift taxpayer dollars to programs that will provide the biggest bang for the buck for constituents.

California is still way behind the reform curve. In 2011, SB 14 (Wolk), a measure to create a Performance-Based Budget for the state, passed the Assembly and State Senate unanimously but was vetoed by Governor Brown. In his veto message, Governor Brown belittled the PBB concept but promised to issue an Executive Order directing the director of finance to establish program goals with measurable outcomes in time for the 2012-13 Budget. That never happened.

Examine the state’s 2018-19 Budget. Good luck in finding any performance data. Over the last seven years, state spending is up 59 percent. But are residents getting 59 percent, 30 percent or even 10 percent more services? K-12 education spending is up 60 percent but math and reading scores have flat-lined over the same time period. Enrollment in taxpayer-subsidized health programs is up 54 percent but there is no data showing any improvement health outcomes or shorter wait times in the ER.

The same flawed budget problem occurs in Placer County. Placer County’s 2018-19 Budget will spend $939 million but nowhere in the budget documents can one learn how effective spending has been in impacting the crime rate, preventing catastrophic fire, moving homeless people and welfare recipients to self-sufficiency, lowering substance abuse, paving roads, providing parks and libraries or creating new jobs.

In 2012, I was, after three years of effort, successful in convincing the Auburn City Council to support creating a performance-based budget. Being completely open about the “good, bad, and ugly” of city performance was the first step toward creating a culture that focused on increasing service levels. We began collecting performance data for every department including 911 response times, the number of defensible space inspections, graffiti removal, the line-miles of roads paved and creeks cleared of tree limbs. We were making excellent progress in advancing transparency and accountability.

But soon after I left the City Council at the end of 2014, the performance-based budget morphed into a cheerleading document with lots of pictures of smiling politicians. Then city council members no longer demanded from staff performance data early on in the process so they rather than staff could craft the budget. Then on June 25, the guillotine fell. The City Council decided to ignore all previous council votes that requires Auburn to craft a performance-based budget each year. Now and going forward, Auburn residents will no longer be able to examine one document, the city’s performance-based budget, and make a judgment as to whether their elected officials are doing everything they can to ensure that residents getting their money’s worth.

At the state, county and city level we need elected champions who are fiercely committed to the founder’s vision, as express by James Madison, that “people who mean to be their own governors must arm themselves with the power which knowledge gives.”

Kevin Hanley is an economics instructor and former mayor of Auburn.